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Casino Royale and Stranger Than Fiction among best bets



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BABEL An award winner at Cannes, Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (excellent Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel. But because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing. **1/2

BOBBY If the late Robert Altman had been dropped on his head as a toddler, Bobby is the sort of movie he might have ended up making. Writer-director Emilio Estevez has clearly adopted Altman's MO for this ambitious effort that's only tangentially about Robert F. Kennedy -- we get the all-star cast, the overlapping dialogue, the furtive glances at the ever-changing American landscape -- but despite a few scattered scenes worth preserving, the overall picture is shallow, tedious and ultimately insignificant. Set in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in the hours leading up to Kennedy's assassination, Bobby is inspired by the sort of multistory TV shows Estevez grew up with (Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, etc.). So while Democratic staffers are busy prepping for Kennedy's visit, soggy melodramas involving employees and guests are being played out in the site's corridors and rooms (Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy and Laurence Fishburne are among the wasted thespians). Bobby is as much about Robert Kennedy as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product. **

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN Originally conceived as a character on HBO's Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary -- and there's your plot in a nutshell. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they're being questioned by a foreign reporter. If Borat is staged in any way, then it's a "mockumentary" that stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point -- after about an hour, you'll be satisfied. Yet if the filmmakers' claim that everything is on the level is true, then this is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking that's able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny, but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which our societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie. ***

CASINO ROYALE In most respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years, just a shade below the likes of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. Basically, it wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. As intensely played by Daniel Craig, this James Bond isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. With memorable characters and exciting action scenes, Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating. ***1/2

FLUSHED AWAY It's a textbook Faustian example of selling one's soul to the devil. Great Britain's Aardman Animations, the studio behind the delightful Wallace & Gromit films, has always ignored the American modus operandi of churning out loud and obnoxious toon flicks by sticking to its veddy British guns and producing works that relied on clay animation rather than CGI and clarity instead of chaos. Flushed Away, however, reveals that the devil is starting to collect his due. The story of a pet mouse (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in an underground city populated by rats, frogs, slugs and other critters, the film exhibits the frenzied pace and overbearing characterizations that have become standard in US-born-and-bred animated features. The story is strictly perfunctory -- and further hampered by the sort of puerile gags that have come to define Yankee toon flicks. Where the Aardman wit is retained -- and what significantly elevates the film's worth -- is in the small details, tossed-off asides and background imagery: Keep your eyes on the margins and you'll remain satisfied by the gems found among the clutter and cacophony. **1/2

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION The latest from Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind) is a swipe at all the hoopla surrounding Oscar season, with Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer and Christopher Moynihan cast as actors whose latest film, an indie project called Home For Purim, is being touted as a possible Academy Award nominee. As Marilyn Hack, the cast member deemed most likely to earn an Oscar nod, O'Hara delivers a tour de force performance, channeling all the hopefulness, rage and despair that will doubtless strike a chord with aging, frequently unemployed and quickly forgotten thespians all across Los Angeles (Posey also benefits from landing one of her best screen roles to date). The knowing screenplay by Guest and Eugene Levy yields plenty of laughs until the last act, at which point the resolution of the Oscar nom race becomes obvious to predict and the subsequent grilling of the non-nominees comes across as both cruel and unlikely. Clearly, out of these four Guest titles, For Your Consideration will have to settle for fourth place. But when one looks at the stellar competition, that's hardly meant as a dig. ***

THE FOUNTAIN To dismiss The Fountain out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that writer-director Darren Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watchable epic. The auteur has set his sights on nothing less than matters of life and death, using his ambitious yarn to examine the manner in which the act of dying is viewed -- as a finality, as a rebirth, as a disease, as a shot at immortality. Ultimately, the film's philosophy may be no more weighty than the "Circle of Life" theory espoused by The Lion King, but Aronofsky offers plenty of food for thought (and refuses to spell out anything). I wish that the film, which finds Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing characters in the past, present and future, were longer than its 95 minutes: A troubled production history doubtless contributed to its short length, choppy structure and thin characterizations. But it's easy to see why some viewers will despise this while others will adore it -- although in the middle, I lean toward the latter group, and further believe this will benefit from repeat viewings. One thing's for sure, though: I was wrong when I recently wrote that Marie Antoinette would be 2006's premiere love-it-or-leave-it title. That throne has already been usurped. **1/2

A GOOD YEAR Moviegoers who condemn Shortbus as porn might want to take a look at A Good Year, which offers a different form of hedonistic pleasure. Set in the south of France, it's unabashed erotica for wanna-be world travelers, offering orgasmic visions of the provincial countryside and its attendant vineyards, chateaus and lusty locals. Based on Peter Mayle's novel, this stars Russell Crowe as a ruthless London trader who discovers his own humanity after he inherits an estate owned by his late Uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Director Ridley Scott, used to overseeing weighty projects, tries to pump up this slender tale into something more meaningful: His tactic of choice is to bully us into always feeling something, which leads to an astonishing amount of clumsy comedy and overreaching sentiment. Crowe, on the same wavelength as his director, oozes charm in every scene, a decision that makes it all the more difficult to accept the fact that his character is initially supposed to be a heartless profiteer. Minor annoyances such as these pop up throughout the picture, but then along comes another cheesecake shot of gorgeous wine country, and whoops, off scampers our one-track mind. **1/2

STRANGER THAN FICTION Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent whose dull life is marked by rigid routine, learns that he has inadvertently become the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). What affects the character also affects him, a disaster once he realizes that the author is plotting to kill off her creation. Despite the innovative premise, the script by Zach Helm never matches the existential, mind-bending depths of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or I Heart Huckabees. This remains a resolutely mainstream offering, with flights of fancy that lightly tickle the brain but never really challenge it. The upside is that this allows a conventional love story to take root amid the high concept, and as enacted by Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing a baker who awakens Harold's dormant passions), it's both charming and disarming. Stranger Than Fiction promises a heady experience, but it ultimately heads for the heart instead. ***

TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY Metalhead JB (Jack Black) heads to LA and hooks up with struggling musician KG (Kyle Gass); after a smidgen of soul-searching and a lot of bong hits, the two elect to become the band known as Tenacious D. And there we have the origin story of Tenacious D, already a cult outfit thanks to their music videos and brief TV series. The rest of the film concerns the duo's efforts to obtain a magical guitar pick made from the tooth of Satan, but continuity isn't this meandering movie's strong suit. This is basically a series of comic riffs designed to entertain viewers under the influence, with a barrage of hot-and-cold jokes, a pair of extended -- and shockingly unfunny -- cameos by Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins, and the usual assortment of bodily function gags. Maybe it's my age, but I laughed harder when Cheech and Chong went this route with the cult hit Up In Smoke. The key difference is that a viewer could enjoy C&C's film alone and without the aid of a joint. But in the case of The Pick of Destiny, you'll probably be better off watching it with a bud, if you catch my (double) meaning. **


THE NATIVITY STORY: Keisha Castle-Hughes. Oscar Isaac.

TURISTAS: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George.

VAN WILDER 2: THE RISE OF TAJ: Kal Penn, Lauren Cohan.